Analysis: Eshel case will fade, but questions remain

Analysis: What does affair say about the day-to-day workings inside the Prime Minister’s Office?

Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem 311 (R) (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem 311 (R)
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
Sunday’s announcement that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s close confidant and powerful chief of staff, Natan Eshel, agreed to a plea bargain and will leave office next week will considerably reduce the media focus on a number of uncomfortable questions raised by the affair.
For example, since Eshel admitted to unbecoming behavior in his relationship with “R.,” one of his subordinates, and lost his job over that behavior, questions about why exactly he was looking into her email inbox, why he followed her or why he took unusual photos of the young woman will naturally fade away.
Likewise, there will be much less interest in why R. adamantly refused to complain or press charges.
But what won’t disappear is the greater question the whole affair raises: What does it say about the day-to- day workings inside the Prime Minister’s Office?
Ministry spokesmen will say, not without some justification, that this type of thing happens in offices all over the country. This is not the first time a boss has gone overboard in his relationship with a subordinate, or taken liberties – even if not sexual in nature – with someone who works under him.
But this is not just any office, Eshel was not just any boss, and these are not just any times.
Eshel, who has been serving at Netanyahu’s discretion, is one of the most powerful men in the country by virtue of his position. In addition to serving as Netanyahu’s key political adviser, he also controls the prime minister’s daily agenda, decides where he will appear and speak, and determines who will – and who will not – merit face time with the leader, and in what order.
Plus, Eshel had the complete trust and confidence of the Netanyahu family – something that placed him almost in a league of his own inside the Prime Minister’s Office.
Even with all this power, Eshel never really came under public scrutiny. He gave almost no interviews, and many in the country probably did not even recognize his name when the affair first broke last month.
Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein praised the three senior advisers in the Prime Minister’s Office who came forward with complaints against Eshel – communications director Yoaz Hendel, cabinet secretary Tzvi Hauser and military attaché Maj.-Gen. Yohanan Locker – saying they acted appropriately.
Yet despite Weinstein’s praise, the three men – all holding crucial positions – have to be asking themselves now how secure their own jobs are since their complaints led to the downfall of a trusted confidant of the Netanyahu family.
But is this really the time the prime minister wants to conduct a major overhaul in his office? At a time when the diplomatic process with the Palestinians is stagnating, the region is in turmoil and – most importantly – the government is facing the existential question of whether or not to attack Iran, the country needs a prime minister who is well focused and not worried about the administration of his office.
Netanyahu needs the peace and quiet essential for dealing with the big issues, and cannot be diverted by his right-hand man’s inappropriate behavior.
Any office would be reeling from a trauma that hits the most senior levels, and certainly the Prime Minister’s Office is not immune.
This type of intrigue and politics obviously casts a shadow and leaves scars, and it is coming at a most inopportune moment for the country.
At a time like this, the prime minister needs an inner circle he can trust, one that works harmoniously.
The last thing he needs is to sweat the small stuff.
So even though Eshel is going, and even though the story will now fade away, the more important question remains: Who will replace him and can that individual put Netanyahu’s office in order so the prime minister can focus on running the country, not minding the staff?